Selling Grief


A string of recent ads have seen companies try to piggyback off of some of the most talked about and emotional topics in today’s society, and saying that they haven’t been well received is probably an understatement. To name just a couple, Pepsi faced widespread backlash for an ad that seemed to glamorize social protest, and Dove received a collective groan when they tried to comment on “real beauty” and body image by bottling their products in several different shapes and sizes to represent the varying body compositions of women. Many consumers questioned why these brands felt the need to comment on these social issues, but the use of these social issues to sell products seems innocent in comparison to the use of something else: death.

A recent McDonald’s ad that ran in the United Kingdom seemingly exploited child bereavement and has left a bad taste in consumers’ mouths. In the ad, a young boy asks his mother to tell him about his late father. The boy and his mother go on a walk while she tells him all about his father. To the boy’s disappointment, he realizes that he doesn’t seem to have anything in common with his father. That is, until they arrive at a McDonald’s and the boy bites into a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. To his delight, his mother informs him that the Filet-O-Fish was his father’s favorite sandwich too.

To many, the McDonald’s ad came off as a blatant attempt to exploit childhood grief in the hopes of selling a sandwich.

Shelley Gilbert, a psychotherapist and founder of the children’s bereavement charity Grief Encounter, commented, “What McDonald’s have done is exploited childhood bereavement as a way to connect with young people and surviving parents alike – unsuccessfully. One in 29 children are bereaved of a parent or sibling by the time they are 16 years of age, so this storyline will resonate with a huge number of children and surviving parents. We have already received countless phone calls this morning, with parents telling us their bereaved children have been upset by the advert and alienated by McDonald’s as a brand that wants to emotionally manipulate its customers.” Alienating its customers is obviously the exact opposite of what a business wants to do.

McDonald’s responded to the ad’s criticism by swiftly pulling it. A McDonald’s spokeswoman announced, “We can confirm today that we have taken the decision to withdraw our ‘Dad’ TV advert. The advert will be removed from all media, including TV and cinema, completely and permanently this week. It was never our intention to cause any upset. We are particularly sorry that the advert may have disappointed those people who are most important to us: our customers.”

So, how can marketers avoid the PR disaster of alienating consumers with an insensitive ad?

From the start of the creative process, marketers need to be aware of how their ads may be seen by different consumers. Had McDonald’s consulted with a person who actually lost a parent as a child about the concept for this ad, they probably would have quickly realized that the ad could be seen as offensive and insensitive. Brands may also want to consider steering clear of sensitive issues that don’t directly relate to the product or service they’re trying to sell.

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